The value of films in which characters just talk is underestimated. In the romance genre especially, the showing of devotion is dependent upon grand gestures, raucous exchanges, and love scenes that look more Basic Instinct than everyday, a somewhat maddening plight that designates a human experience as something dreamy and untouchable, more fantasy than comestible fiction. There’s nothing wrong with a movie romance per se. But one can tire of watching characters, after only a few days of knowing each other, dramatically reveal that they are, in fact, consumed with love. Done wrong, this proclamation can feel like a sham.
Which is why Before Sunrise has remained so refreshing for so long. In an era where products of genre convolution were the works most audiences turned to for old-fashioned romance, it ripped clichés apart and wondered if a cinematic couple could fall in love just through dialogue, no sex scenes or artificial contrivances around to impair passion.
The people falling in love at Before Sunrise's center are Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), a pair of twenty-somethings who meet by chance in Europe. Both traveling by train, Jesse to Vienna and Céline back to her Parisian university, an instant connection is made after Jesse suggests they lounge in the dining car after a bickering couple leaves the seating area feeling uncomfortable.
Just a few minutes into conversation do they realize that there is a real spark between them. Thoughts about life, love, and their liberties flow like summer wine, a slight humor edging out the dialogue with better-than-usual meet-cute fashion.
A couple of hours go by and departure is impending. But the two don’t much feel like selling their attachment short. Jesse proposes that Céline spend the rest of the day in Vienna with him (he leaves for America the following morning), and she enthusiastically accepts. And so the rest of Before Sunrise simply watches them talk, with us sighing optimistically as their quick friendship blossoms into love.
Before Sunrise makes for a stark contrast from the vast majority of romantic films. In most, individuals involved have clipped, severely shallow conversation that does little to suggest that passion lingers. But in this film, we are witnesses to the process of finding a soulmate, where a few hours makes for the equivalent of a lifetime. The way Jesse and Céline speak to each other, it’s impossible not to believe that authentic affection remains. I don’t recall either uttering the phrase “I love you,” but they don’t need to. You can see it in their eyes, and such an epiphany would only be damaging, as they, realistically, cannot be together.
As the film’s leads, Hawke and Delpy don’t seem to be acting, most commenting that they have chemistry, charisma, that gives the impression that they’re real people being followed around by an invisible camera, unaware how their cleverness appears to be rooted in an ultimate vulnerability that all twenty-somethings face. They might not be experts in the art of love, but with each other, they just might have a taste of what it actually is. Hawke and Delpy are agreeably earnest, largely average people we really like, as it should be.
Of course, Before Sunrise is the kind of film that feels like an introduction, as later installments, 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight, continued the romantic rendezvous and saw Jesse and Céline as older, wiser people with more experience to base their connection off. In that sense, we leave wanting more, desperate for extra time. But that’s how it goes in a brief encounter. Richard Linklater, who writes and directs, never lets that feeling lose its footing. Before Sunrise might not be what we talk about when we talk about cinematic love, but it’s time to turn a blind eye to Tom and Meg and make a switch to this near-documentary account. B+